The spirit of giving | Bob Burtman | Indy Week
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The spirit of giving 

In the wake of the holiday season and with the new year in full swing, it's heartwarming to note that the spirit of giving is still strong in North Carolina. Retailers sold more stuff this year than last as consumers expressed confidence in the economy by exercising the Christmas imperative with unrestrained gusto. Even the less fortunate had opportunities for material enrichment at a deep discount--last week, WRBZ-AM sports talk host Chris Clark recycled his unwanted gifts on the air in his Semi-Annual Christmas Crap Giveaway.

Few examples of generosity were as dramatic as those offered by state and local officialdom this season, however. Heading the list was Forsyth County District Attorney Tom Keith, who cleared the way for convicted killer Darryl Hunt to leave prison and rejoin his family in time for Christmas Eve. Keith told the Associated Press that the move was warranted because Hunt would soon be eligible for parole. As to the matter of Hunt's innocence, Keith refused to rule out dropping the charges pending a hearing in February, despite DNA tests excluding Hunt in the 1984 rape-murder. The tests implicated another man, who confessed to the crime after his Dec. 21 arrest. "I'm a slow, careful person and need time to check it out," Keith explained.

No need to relate the entire sordid tale of Hunt's ordeal, which should have ended in 1994 after the DNA test showed that the semen found in the body of Winston-Salem newspaper editor Deborah Sykes did not come from Hunt or his alleged accomplices. (For the full story, check out the superb coverage in the Winston-Salem Journal at http://extras.journalnow.com/hunt/). After all, the state originally claimed that Hunt had acted alone, then revised its theory to include the accomplices to explain away other troubling details. But Judge Meltzer Morgan invoked yet a new perpetrator, a phantom unindicted co-ejaculator, in denying Hunt's motion for a new trial. That less-than-dubious ruling was upheld by the nine wise men on the state Supreme Court, and Hunt rotted in prison for another decade.

The State Bureau of Investigation could have compared the DNA results with its database, but the agency dragged its feet for months. To the law enforcement community, after all, nothing is more important than the sanctity of the verdict and the finality of judgment--not even innocence. Not until a judge threatened the SBI with contempt in the wake of the Journal series were the tests done. Now Hunt is free at last. Keith, Meltzer, the SBI, the cops and the courts that continually thwarted justice for more than a decade haven't said much, though Keith apparently believes the system has once again acquitted itself well. Perhaps they'll all compound their magnanimity by sending Hunt a congratulatory Christmas card and a gift certificate to Wal-Mart.

Topping the gift of life isn't easy, but state elected officials got in the spirit the way they know best--not by giving, but by giving away. We'll never know why Boeing didn't want to build its new jet manufacturing plant at the Global TransPark in scenic Kinston, but the state did offer Boeing about $100 million to locate there, plus the firstborn of every Lenoir County resident.

Only ungrateful naysayers will criticize the $240 million avalanche of presents legislators approved during Gov. Mike Easley's special session on corporate incentives. Triangle residents were no doubt especially thrilled to hear they might host a new Merck vaccine plant in Durham's Treyburn development. In addition to $36.8 million in tax breaks and other incentives, Merck was exempted from the headache of conducting a thorough environmental review of the project, which will border the Eno River and sit about a mile from Falls Lake, a source of Raleigh's drinking water.

The exemption was necessary, said Commerce Department officials, to avoid any unnecessary delays in construction. Not to worry, they said, because where the facility's wastewater will go and what pollutants the plant may pump into the air will be determined later. Merck's checkered environmental record in other states, detailed in a recent N&O story, has no bearing here, they said. And besides, they reassured, the state Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources will make sure everything is in order before any permits are granted. In exchange for its present, Merck has not yet awarded Triangle residents the right to buy its prescription drugs at Canadian prices. Maybe next Christmas.

That gift was small potatoes compared to the package awarded R.J. Reynolds, which earlier in the year announced the layoff of 2,600 North Carolina employees. To encourage the tobacco giant to hire back 800 of them, legislators agreed to bestow upon Reynolds more than $150 million in incentives. Other companies seeking favors will no doubt soon line up like the homeless at a Salvation Army benefit to get their fair share of the party favors. It would be positively Scrooge-like to deny them.

Let it not be said that tobacco interests gave nothing back to the community. The state plugged holes in its budget with cash from the $4.2 billion tobacco lawsuit settlement, though most of that money was supposed to go to smoking-prevention and other health programs. And the Golden LEAF Foundation, the quasi-governmental body charged with distributing half the proceeds from the settlement to encourage economic development in depressed counties, continues to bestow benevolence in the form of its annual grants. Announced in time for the holidays, these included

$100,000 to UNC-Charlotte to conduct an economic assessment of the motorsports industry in North Carolina. $50,000 for a horse park in Hoke County and $600,000 for a pair of rural prisons.

The fortuitous prison building boom continues, with state corrections officials announcing last month that even with three new prisons coming on line and another three in the planning stages, the state will be short several prisons to meet expected growth in the inmate population in 10 years. At about $80 million a pop (or much more, depending on who's counting) and millions more in annual expenses, that's a lot of economic development to bolster North Carolina's job prospects well into the future.

In this climate of rank selflessness, local officials couldn't help but do their part. Even as the Raleigh convention center hotel appeared to be coming in under-sized and over-budget, The N&O revealed that many of the players involved in the planning and development process stood to gain from their participation. Only, of course, because others involved in the process understood the need to thank them for their hard work on behalf of the community.

The entire Triangle will have to wait a few years to unwrap the biggest, shiniest local present this season--the $500 million makeover of Raleigh-Durham Airport's Terminal C. Thanks to the forethinking members of the RDU Airport Authority, the terminal will be razed to the ground and rebuilt into a glittering regional gateway three times its current size. Exhibiting the can-do attitude that built Research Triangle Park and the RBC Center, authority members are forging ahead with the plan even though airport traffic declined 7 percent in the past year. The nationally renowned architects, who will receive an as-yet-undisclosed multi-million-dollar thanks for their uncompromising vision, will incorporate local landmarks in the design ("gated" subdivisions and a strip-mall concourse, for example), introducing the flavors of the Triangle to those travelers who don't already live here. Money for the project will come from a $4.50 passenger boarding fee as well as parking revenue and various tariffs paid by the airlines, who may or may not choose to show their own holiday goodwill by declining to pass along the costs in the form of higher ticket prices.

Consider it a gift to ourselves.

And once that's done, the Authority will be free to embark on a similarly extreme makeover of Terminal A, estimated to cost between $500 million and $1 billion. When the airport is finally completed, those current residents still alive to bask in its glory will understand that true joy lies, indeed, in the giving.

It takes an abject cynic to suggest that it's easy to give away money when it belongs to someone else. I for one can hardly wait to see what shows up under the tree in 2004. Happy New Year to one and all. EndBlock

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